From the time the first colonies were settled in America, relations between the Native American Indians and white settlers ranged from respected friends to hated enemies. Into the 1800s, Americans who were still in competition with the Indians for land and resources considered them to be uncivilized and barbaric. But many Americans admired the Indians and valued their contributions to American history and culture. These people hoped that with time the Indians could be peaceably assimilated into American society. Even before the Revolution, churches and religious organizations sent missionaries among the Indians to try to convert them to Christianity. In 1787, the Society for Propagating the Gospel among Indians was founded for that purpose. The federal government joined the effort to “civilize” Native Americans that had first been undertaken by the colonies and the churches. In 1793, Congress designated $20,000, a substantial sum for the time, to provide literacy, farming, and vocational assistance to Native Americans.
The United States recognized Indian tribes as separate nations of people entitled to their own lands that could only be obtained from them through treaties. Due to inexorable pressures of expansion, settlement, and commerce, however, treaties made with good intentions where often perceived as unsustainable within just a few years. The Indians felt betrayed and frequently reacted with violence when land promised to them forever was taken away. For the most part, however, they directed their energies toward maintaining their tribal identity while living in the new order.
By 1830, most of the territories east of the Mississippi River had become states. The Democratic Party, led by President Andrew Jackson, was committed to economic progress in the states and to settlement and development of the western frontier. These goals put the government in conflict with the more than 125,000 Native Americans who still lived east of the Mississippi. By this time, many Indians had given up nomadic hunting and had adopted a more settled way of life. In particular, the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles tried to live in harmony with their white neighbors who called them the Five Civilized Tribes. The real conflict between the government and the Indians was the land held by the Indians through legal treaties. White pioneers, frustrated by the lack of opportunity in the settled areas, pushed hard for new lands to purchase and farm, while states containing Indian territories resented the existence of lands within their borders over which they had no authority and from which they collected no revenue.
The Treaty of 1791 recognized the Cherokees’ right to a substantial portion of northeastern Georgia. The Cherokees were very successful at adapting to a new way of life, farming the land, raising cattle, growing cotton, and even owning slaves to work their plantations. Missionaries established schools and helped the Cherokees in their new lives. One Cherokee, Sequoyah, devised the Cherokee syllabic alphabet of 85 characters so that his people could write down and preserve their thoughts. With a written language, the Cherokee were able to publish their own newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix.
The Cherokees established their own governing body called the Cherokee National Council. In 1808, the Cherokee National Council developed a legal system, and in 1827 wrote a constitution enacting a system of tribal government to regulate affairs within the borders of their lands. Their government included an electoral system and a legislative, judicial, and executive branch. One tenet of the constitution was that on their own lands the Cherokee were not subject to the laws of Georgia. Treaties with the U.S. government recognized the Cherokee Nation, but the State of Georgia objected to having an independent Indian nation within its boundaries. Believing that the laws of Georgia should be sovereign throughout their state, Georgians passed legislation claiming jurisdiction over the Cherokee Nation in 1828.
These political actions coincided with increasing economic pressures to open this area to white settlement and development. The Cherokee land was coveted for agricultural production at a time when the population of the state was increasing and demand for farmland was high. In addition, gold was discovered in the region and many whites were eager to mine it.
In the face of mounting opposition to federal protection for autonomous Indian nations in Georgia and other states—opposition that threatened to become violent—President Jackson decided to move the Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River. He felt this offered the best hope to preserve peace and protect the Indians from being scattered and destroyed. Opening new land to white settlement would also increase economic progress. Jackson insisted that the Indians receive a fair price for their lands and that the government pay all expenses of resettlement.
In 1830 at the request of Jackson, a bill went before Congress authorizing moving the Indians across the Mississippi. Daniel Webster and Henry Clay opposed the Indian Removal Bill, but its most bitterly outspoken opponent was Davy Crockett. Having served in the army under Jackson, Crockett was a Jacksonian Democrat until he and the president parted ways over treatment of the Indians. In the next Tennessee congressional election, the Democrats threw their support to another candidate, and Crockett was defeated. Disgusted with partisanship, Crockett left the arena of national politics and went to Texas, delivering, as was the custom, a resounding rendition of his farewell speech at every stop along the way. Within a year he perished defending the Alamo.
Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which provided for the resettlement of all Native Americans then residing east of the Mississippi to a newly defined Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. There the Indians were to be free to pursue their lives without interference. This removal was intended to be voluntary, but groups of Indians were strongly pressured to go. The legislation affected not only the Indians in Georgia, but over 100,000 Native Americans in other states, including all of the Five Civilized Tribes.
Little recognition was given to the fact that the Indians of the east were not familiar with how to subsist in the harsh conditions of the Great Plains or that the remuneration they received for their lands would benefit them little there. In addition, many tribes harbored ancient hostilities for other tribes. The Indian Removal Act made little provision for separation of groups. Once in the territory, Indians were left to get along however they might.
Nevertheless, many Indian groups, already surrounded by white settlements, accepted the government decree and moved west. The Choctaws of Mississippi made the trek from 1831 through 1833, and the Creeks of Alabama in 1836. Only nominally voluntary, these migrations often turned into forced marches during which many perished. The Choctaws lost one-fourth of their people before arriving in Oklahoma, while the Creeks lost 3,500 of the 15,000 who began the journey.
The Cherokees were not happy with the relocation plan and resisted being forced to move. In 1831, the Cherokees turned to the courts for defense against the Indian Removal Act and against the Georgia Legislature’s nullification of Cherokee laws. Three times their cases went to the Supreme Court. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee had “an unquestionable right” to their lands, but that they were "not a foreign state, in the sense of the Constitution" but rather a “domestic, dependent nation” and so could not sue in a United States court over Georgia’s voiding their right to self-rule. Although this was a blow to the Cherokee case against Georgia, it cast doubt on the constitutionality of the Indian Removal Act.
In Worcester v. Georgia in 1832, the Court reversed itself and ruled that the State of Georgia could not control the Cherokee within their territory. The case revolved around two missionaries, Samuel Austin Worcester and Elizur Butler, who were welcomed by the Cherokee but who had not obtained a license under Georgia law to live on Cherokee lands. Worcester and Butler were ordered by Georgia to take an oath of allegiance to the state or leave Cherokee land. They refused and were arrested. The missionaries were consigned to hard labor on a chain gang for 16 months while the case was being decided. Later they would accompany the Cherokees on their long trek to Oklahoma. In 1992, the Georgia legislature formally pardoned Worcester and Butler.
In a third case, the Court agreed that crimes committed in Cherokee Territory were beyond the jurisdiction of the State of Georgia. This case involved a Cherokee named Corn Tassel who had been convicted in a Georgia court of murdering another Indian. Corn Tassel’s attorney appealed the conviction on the grounds that the killing had taken place in Cherokee territory, so Georgia had no right to try him. The Supreme Court sided with the Cherokees and found that the Georgia ruling was unconstitutional. President Jackson, however, made it clear that he would tolerate no independent nation within the borders of the United States. When he publicly backed Georgia, Corn Tassel was hanged. The Cherokees then understood that even the Supreme Court could not save their cause.
In backing Georgia against the Supreme Court, President Jackson was responding to pressures in several different areas. Political pressure to open Indian lands to white settlement had been mounting for some time. With increasing conflicts of interest between settlers and Indians came an ever-greater likelihood of violence not only for the Cherokees but for all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi. In addition, Jackson believed in states’ rights and wanted to limit federal power, including the power of the Supreme Court. He was also understandably concerned with the dangers inherent in granting political autonomy to groups of people wanting to establish separate laws and governments that could supersede the laws and government of a state. For these reasons he was at odds with Marshall’s Court, which felt obligated to uphold the provisions of the treaties that had already been made with the Indians. Jackson made no effort to obscure the fact that while the Court might rule whatever it pleased, the executive branch was not constrained to follow the ruling.
The Sac (Sauk), and Fox tribes of Illinois and Wisconsin were also affected by the Indian Removal Act. One Sac chief signed a treaty abandoning Indian lands east of the Mississippi, and he moved the tribes to Iowa. Chief Black Hawk, however, along with a faction from the tribes, revolted against forced removal from the land of their ancestors. In 1832, they returned to their Illinois lands and conducted a campaign of raids and ambushes. The United States Army responded and violently suppressed what the government considered an Indian insurrection. Black Hawk was captured and imprisoned in St. Louis in 1833. Among the regular army troops involved in this action was Lieutenant Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, while Captain Abraham Lincoln served with the Illinois volunteers. Thirty years later these two men would head the Confederate and Union governments during the Civil War
In the case of the Seminoles in Florida, callous and misguided decisions by the government contributed to the bloodiest Indian conflict in U.S. history. The Seminole Indians were ordered to merge with their ancestral enemy, the Creeks, for relocation. The Creeks were slaveowners, and many of the Seminoles had escaped from Creek slavery. The Seminoles were justifiably outraged and several hundred, joined by runaway black slaves, refused to leave Florida and move west. They retreated to the swamps of the Everglades, where they fought a bitter and protracted war with the United States Army. Over seven years (1835-1842), this conflict claimed the lives of 1,500 U.S. soldiers. In 1837, Chief Osceola was captured by treachery under a flag of truce and sent to a prison where he soon perished. Three thousand Seminoles were then forced to relocate to Oklahoma in a bitter forced march. Another 1,000 hid in the Everglades, however, and continued to fight for five more years. Some were never captured, and the Seminole tribe became divided by this struggle.
Historians are divided on President Andrew Jackson’s feelings toward Indians. Some claim he was a virulent Indian hater and cite as evidence the fact that he commanded the American troops that killed nearly 900 Creeks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. On the other hand, Jackson led an invasion of Florida in 1818 to capture runaway slaves and punish those who aided them. There he ordered Indians, Spanish, and British alike hanged or otherwise killed. Rather than claim simply that Jackson was an Indian hater, it might be more accurate to say that he was a man of his times, and the times were violent. Jackson was a practical, action-oriented person, who felt it was clear that the time of the Indian nations within the states was over. That being the case, he saw no reason to prolong their inevitable departure. On the contrary, in light of the political and economic advantages to Indian removal, he insisted it be accomplished as quickly as possible.
Having served two terms, Jackson chose Martin Van Buren, his Secretary of State, to run as the Democratic candidate in 1836. Van Buren won against the newly organized, conservative Whig Party and continued the Jacksonian political tradition of championing the rights of individual citizens to prosper in America. Primarily this had been achieved by restraining monopolistic and oppressive business, as Jackson had considered the Bank of the United States to be. Making sure that new land was available for settlement had been another important part of Jackson’s political strategy.
Unlike Jackson, Van Buren was sociable, diplomatic, and not given to making strong partisan statements. His presidency was mostly concerned with countering the recession that followed the demise of the Bank of the United States and the Jacksonian policy of insisting that western lands be paid for in gold or silver. Speculation had grown out of control, banks went under, and the banknotes that served as paper currency became worthless or highly unstable in value. In addition, instabilities in the British economy and the failure of two major British banks had negative repercussions in the United States.
Unemployment in the U.S. reached 30% as wages dropped precipitously, often by half. Public relief was not considered a province of the government at that time, so hundreds of thousands of destitute people had no other assistance than what was provided by charities and volunteer organizations.
The Van Buren years suffered other difficulties, as well. A wheat crop failure forced grain prices to intolerable levels, triggering food riots in New York just as he was taking office. Later that year, Antonio López de Santa Anna wiped out the legendary force at the Alamo, and the American Sam Houston led an army that captured the Mexican general and forced him to relinquish the portion of Texas north of the Rio Grande. The Mexican government complained, but Texas wanted to join the Union. This presented a serious problem to the United States because Texas would join as a slave state and upset the delicate political balance in the country.
The Jacksonian legacy was to remove the difficult Indian element in order to allow settlement and entrepreneurship to progress unrestrained by native resistance. Van Buren inherited this situation and the mechanisms that had been established to deal with it. Distracted by economic and political matters and pressured by his mentor Jackson, Van Buren allowed the issue of the Cherokees of Georgia to be resolved by their removal to the Indian Territory in the manner conceived by the administration before him.
In 1836, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created to handle relations with the Indians. It had no control, however, over white expansion westward. The Bureau was unable to honor many of the agreements made with the Indians. The frontier that the Bureau had claimed as a permanent settlement location for the Indians turned out to last only into the 1850s as Americans continued to push westward.In the fall of 1838, the U.S. government, now under Van Buren, ordered the forcible removal of the Cherokees from Georgia to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Of the 18,000 that began the 1,000 mile, 116-day trek, 4,000 perished on the way of illness, cold, starvation, and exhaustion. The U.S. Army oversaw the march and forced a continuous pace at rifle and bayonet point disregarding the terrible hardship of the travelers. For this reason, the journey is known as the Trail of Tears. Some historians partially blame the Cherokee leaders for failing to make preparations to leave during the time they were given. Regardless of who was responsible, however, the circumstances of suffering and death remain a tragic chapter in American history. In all, between 1831 and 1839 about 46,000 Indian people were relocated across the Mississippi River.
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